Difficult Conversations

by Barbara Buffton

The importance of rapport

Whether it’s having to break bad news to an employee, say ‘no’ to a supplier, or negotiate a salary increase, the rapport we already have or can establish with the person concerned can make all the difference to the outcome.

The conversation is the relationship.

Susan Scott

If you know the person well and normally have a good relationship with them, it’s likely there will be fewer surprises, as you should be able to anticipate the way a conversation will go (especially if you have done your Preparation). You should also be able to ‘rescue’ any awkward moments or misinterpretations of your intent. The better the relationship you have with someone, the more likely they are to ‘cut you some slack’ if your words don’t come out exactly the way you intended.

If you don’t know the person well, then it makes sense to build rapport before having a potentially difficult conversation. It could make all the difference between it going well or badly.


Think of someone whose behaviour you want to confront. Imagine what you would say and how you would say it. What would your body language and your facial expressions be like?

Now imagine being the recipient of your words. What might you change in yourself to make the conversation have a good, positive outcome? The words, the tone of voice, expression, body language?

Role-play with someone and get feedback before you have that conversation.

Check for clarification

Building rapport doesn’t mean that you have to like or agree with another person’s take on a situation or a topic. All it means is that you’re prepared to demonstrate empathy, by understanding where they are coming from. Empathy is the ability to sense, understand and respond to what other people are feeling. In practice, this means that you have to stop and listen to their point of view and respond accordingly to clarify the meaning with such phrases as


So what you are saying is...

As I understand it, you...

Let me see if I understand you...

After this, you then either paraphrase or repeat their words to show your understanding.

Proper listening

We often think we are listening, but in fact we’re probably thinking more about what we’re going to say next and when we’re going to be able to say it. In other words, we are on our own agenda.

Proper listening means being on the other person’s agenda and being totally focused on them and what they are saying. It means letting them speak rather than interrupting them. If you can do this, you are valuing what the other person has to say and will make them feel more appreciated.


Before your next difficult conversation, practise proper listening with a friend or work colleague. Ask them about their holiday or a work issue and see how long you can keep them talking, simply by being focused on them. You will need to make ‘listening noises’, such as ‘hmmm...’, ‘yes, I see – do tell me more,’ and ‘really?’. You may also need to ask some open questions, such as ‘where...?’, ‘who with...?’, ‘how did you...?’, ‘when was that?’ and ‘what exactly did you do?’ (Note that using ‘why’ is not always useful, as it can prompt a defensive or aggressive response).

How did that feel for you? Did it make you feel that you understood better how things were for him or her? How do you think the other person felt?

We all need a ‘good listening to’ every once in a while – and especially during a difficult conversation.

Get on the same wavelength

It helps to see the situation from where they are, rather than from where you are. Doing this helps the other person feel you actually understand and value them.

It is also important to be on the same physical level as the other person. In other words, if they are sitting, you sit; if they are standing, you stand. Matching or mirroring their body language more closely (doing it extremely subtly, without mimicking them and without them noticing) can help put them at their ease. This is because we tend to like people like us, and so the more similar we make ourselves, the better the other person feels. In fact, if you already have rapport, you will find you do this naturally anyway. Just check out the couples next time you are in a pub or restaurant – notice how much they mirror and/or match each other’s body language.

To listen closely and reply well is the highest perfection we are able to attain in the art of conversation.

Francois de La Rochefoucauld

There are other ways of gaining and building rapport with someone, for example, through mirroring and matching facial expressions, tone of voice and the actual words. There is more on these basic rapport skills in other topics: the NLP topic on Rapport; Rapport; Listening Skills.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Stephen Covey

When initiating a ‘difficult’ conversation, it is essential to do as much as you can in rapport terms to make the other person feel comfortable, listened to and valued.


Think of a recent ‘difficult’ conversation you’ve had. On a scale of 0 (poor) to 10 (excellent) how good was the rapport between the two of you? What could you have done to enhance the rapport with the other person? What might have changed as a result?